Jean le Jeune

11 September 2002 – 23 March 2003

Jean Tinguely’s political and artistic years of apprenticeship in Basel until 1959

“I began using movement simply as a method of re-creation. It was a way of changing the image to make it infinite, with the aid of the physical and mechanical movement determined by me as an autonomous means of expression. The use of movement made it possible to create objects never before found in sculpture.”

Jean Tinguely’s early work of 1954 to 1959 is the focal point of the “Jean le Jeune” exhibition, which also, and for the first time, sheds light on the artist’s early years in Basel and Paris, when he laid the foundations for the whole of his later career.

From mid-1925 onwards the Tinguely family lived in Basel, where the boy Jean attended primary and secondary school – albeit rather irregularly, since he was obviously more interested in building small water-powered structures on the streams around the city. During these years the artist’s experiences in the Catholic community and the boy scouts also left their mark on him. He was to return to these subjects in the last years of his life, addressing them in such works as the Mengele Totentanz of 1986. It was also in Basel that the young artist completed his political education, moving from enthusiastic membership of the Young Communists’ Association and the “Workers’ Party” to being a critical adherent of the anarchist circle around the publisher and antiquarian Heiner Koechlin. The idea that personal freedom and responsibility are more important than any party doctrine was conveyed to Tinguely in this circle, and from then on it determined his thought and actions: “ I am definitely not building rational 18th-century automata. I am making machines that are free in themselves, have their own anarchic liberty, a chaos peculiar to them, their own order and disorder, and generate their chance operation in their own way …”

Tinguely began training as a window-dresser in Basel in 1941, first at the Globus department store and then with the decorator Joos Hutter: during and after his training the young man also attended courses at the Basel commercial college, where Julia Eble-Ris, his teacher of materials and of figure, nude and fashion drawing, was instrumental in introducing him to the achievements of the avant-garde artists of the early 20th century and to Abstraction, the Dada movement, the Bauhaus, etc. Three decades later Tinguely was still emphasising the importance of those years for the rest of his career: “I learned a great deal from the Dadaists. The graphic art of Max Ernst influenced me too, and so of course did Schwitters and Arp, and Oskar Schlemmer and his brothers. Brancusi was my neighbour for three years …”
In 1949 he met Eva Aeppli at the college of commercial art. They married in 1951, and their daughter Miriam was born the same year.
1949 also saw the beginning of his friendship with Daniel Spoerri. Not only did they work together for decades, Spoerri became Tinguely’s life-long friend.
This phase of Tinguely’s life is well illustrated in the first rooms of the exhibition by early drawings and paintings, as well as a large number of documents.

Tinguely first visited Paris in 1952, with Eva Aeppli and Daniel Spoerri. He had his first and enthusiastically received gallery exhibition there in the spring of 1954, and was represented in the major exhibition “Le Mouvement” at the Galerie Denise René in 1955. From 1955 onwards he worked in the Impasse Ronsin, where he was a neighbour of the Romanian-born sculptor Constantin Brancusi. These years saw not only the beginning of his friendships with Pontus Hulten (1954), Yves Klein (1955) and Niki de Saint Phalle (1956), but also the creation of many groups of works such as the “Moulins à prière”, the delicate “Eléments détachés”, the multi-coloured “Méta-Herbins”, the “Méta-Kandinskys”, and the polychrome reliefs, the “Méta-Malevitchs”, the “Reliefs Blanc sur Blanc” and the “Œufs d’onocrotales”. The artist not only transformed stable forms into mobile objects in these works but introduced sound and elements of chance. In the gallery rooms and the halls with top-lighting, these works by Jean Tinguely stand side by side with works by those artists to whom he refers directly in their titles or through formal features. This dialogue both illustrates the younger man’s regard for the achievements of the classic Modernists and reveals the methods whereby he sought to emerge from the shadow of those over-powerful father figures.

The achievements of the classic Modernists were also the foundations on which the young Tinguely could build in his search for his own artistic language. Tinguely himself described the efforts of these years in impressive terms: “I painted and painted and painted. I’m sure you know what it feels like to be going nowhere. I had total artist’s block with every picture. I could never manage to finish one, I felt paralysed and found myself in a blind alley. I could just never see the end, I didn’t know when I ought to stop painting. […] I could never stop, I would work for months on a picture until the canvas was worn right down because I was constantly scraping off what I’d done and painting over it again. I didn’t even let the paint dry. I simply never could reach the point when it was possible to say, ‘OK, it’s finished now.’ I could never see when the picture had gone rigid on me, so I worked with movement. Movement offered a way out of that rigidity, offered an end in sight. Movement did allow me to say, ‘OK, it’s finished now.’” The achievements of artists like Malevich, Gabo and Moholy-Nagy were of crucial importance to Tinguely’s special way of overcoming the traditional panel painting. They opened up a never-ending field of invention and variation to the young artist: in the second half of the 1950s, when he had moved to Paris, he created a large number of work-groups in which movement, light and shade, sounds and noises, etc., were constantly placed in a different relation to each other. His concern with the artistic creativity of earlier generations is obvious in this process: he made machines with titles like Méta-Malevitch, Méta-Herbin and Méta-Kandinsky which may be understood as friendly and ironic tributes to the “fathers” he had “overtaken on the inside lane”.

In 1958, through the good offices of Yves Klein, Tinguely’s Mes étoiles: Concert pour sept peintures was shown at the Galerie Iris Clert. In this work the artist succeeded in removing, so to speak, the distance between the viewer and the work of art by means of interlinked visual and acoustic stimuli. The exhibition was such a success that Iris Clert was willing to present the epoch-making collaborations of Klein and Tinguely that year in the exhibition “Vitesse pure et stabilité monochrome”. Not only did the group of works exhibited involve the immaterial nature of Klein’s IKB (International Klein Blue) and the earthy weight of Tinguely’s rusty iron structures in a tense dialogue, but contact with Klein also initiated a further phase of development in Tinguely’s work. Here Tinguely was working with the objet trouvé without re-shaping it, as he still did in the earlier reliefs and free-standing mobile sculptures.
Tinguely now became known outside France through the exhibition of another Concert pour sept peintures at the Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf, his happening Für Statik, the dropping of his manifesto of the same name over Düsseldorf, and the large-scale relief in the new building of the Gelsenkirchen opera house.
With the exhibition in 1959 at the Galerie Iris Clert of “Méta-Matics”, automatic drawing machines that allowed the viewer to participate in the work of art even more immediately than anything Tinguely had previously created, the artist opened a new chapter in his career. The works that followed made even more logical use of space, endeavouring to import everyday life and the temporally limited but intensely experienced happening directly into the work of art. They thus decisively extended the traditional concept of the artwork which, for all his innovations, had continued to determine Tinguely’s creative work in the previous decade.

It is logical, therefore, for works like the collaborations with Yves Klein and Mes étoiles: Concert pour sept peintures to conclude this exhibition of the work of the young Jean Tinguely, who said of himself at this time: “I exhibit ‘paintings’ using machines as my canvases.”

A catalogue (200 pages) with a wealth of illustrations will be published on the occasion of the exhibition by the Benteli publishing house (Berne) in German. It will include a preface by Guido Magnaguagno, texts by Jocelyn Daignes, Markus Lüpertz, Andres Pardey, Heinz Stahlhut and Ludmila Vachtova as well as an extensive biography. Price: CHF 39.-